Service Aims to Master Threats Before the Bad Guys

June 16, 2008
by Rita Boland

Three U.S. Air Force electronic warfare specialists create and route test signals, and field a call from the maintenance supervisor, from a maintenance station aboard a RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force Research Laboratory is developing a Virtual Combat Environment for Electronic Conflict to ensure the military stays at the cutting edge of sensor technologies and electronic warfare.
The U.S. Air Force intends to ensure that American troops are not caught unawares by electronic threats. The service is creating a virtual environment that will identify and assess disruptive and other major change technologies that could affect the future battlefield. The experiments will keep the United States on the cutting edge of emerging capabilities and help guarantee battlefield dominance.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, has embarked on a 72-month effort to develop the Virtual Combat Environment for Electronic Conflict (VCEEC, pronounced v-seek) within the Sensors Directorate’s Virtual Combat Laboratory (VCL). “The virtual combat environment will prepare the U.S. Air Force and other services for a wide range of challenges, including traditional, irregular, catastrophic and disruptive threats,” explains Barbara Masquelier, VCEEC program manager.

The objective for VCEEC is to develop an environment that supports four main goals: the design, development and procurement of advanced electronic warfare, cyberspace and information operations technologies; the evaluation, demonstration and acquisition of new sensor technologies; the development and demonstration of layered sensing and battle management techniques; and the identification and evaluation of game-changing disruptive technologies. 

The larger VCL is a sensor research facility that supports developmental testing and evaluation of advanced sensor technologies, electronic warfare concepts, cyberspace and information operations concepts and research tools. Using the combat laboratory for development, test and evaluation helps to lower sensor evaluation and testing costs. It also offers a realistic evaluation of Air Force concepts of operations and enables warfighters to perform military utility analyses on advanced sensor technologies.

Earlier in the year, the Air Force awarded two six-year contracts for VCEEC work to Booz Allen Hamilton and Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. “Booz Allen Hamilton has the VCEEC task order to develop a research environment for the evaluation of sensor technologies in a large systems-of-systems arena,” Masquelier says.

In addition to the two basic contracts, Northrop Grumman also was awarded a task order to create a plan for a disruptive technology innovation cell within the VCL. The objective of that task order is to identify current computer gaming and simulation tools that could be integrated with laboratory computer architecture to provide an environment that supports evaluation and application of potentially disruptive technology innovations.

Northrop Grumman is developing a method to evaluate disruptive technologies. The methodology will include a structured study of potentially altering innovations and will address evaluating these innovations and assessing possible applications.

Two pilots assigned to the "Zappers" of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ-130) man their EA-6B Prowler before flight operations aboard the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The U.S. Air Force is working with the U.S. Navy on various electronic warfare research efforts. Electronic warfare can be especially critical to pilots, whose instrumentation can be disrupted while in flight.

The Air Force is not integrating contractor technologies into the VCL at this time. The VCEEC work involves maintaining and expanding the current modeling and simulation environment, which is based on open-system architectures and nonproprietary software applications.

As the military transitions to more electronic attacks, information operations and other nonkinetic activities, the need to understand how the various factors interact in a dynamic, spectrum-filled environment becomes more critical. The Air Force is attempting to better understand how certain technologies or actions impact the battlespace. According to Mike Hushion, business development manager at Northrop Grumman, part of his company’s job is to determine what game-changing actions can be taken in the information operations realm to change the battlefield.

The fact that warfare has fundamentally changed since September 11, 2001, is a major challenge the military faces. “It’s now, ‘How do you defeat enemies that can change their tactics daily?’” Hushion says. To level the playing field, the military needs to detect and counter the adjustments foes make to keep troops off balance.

According to Hushion’s colleague, Sergio Navarro, the VCEEC program manager at Northrop Grumman, what makes the virtual environment unique is that it examines nontraditional electronic threats along with the traditional threats. Preparing the military in advance for the new dangers is a start to countering them.

Developers are still at the beginning stages of understanding how to exploit electronic spectrum on the battlefield. New technologies are being created, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities have grown significantly over the last several years.

Currently, Northrop Grumman is performing concept studies on various techniques the military might use. After the concept phase concludes, the company believes various technologies will be incorporated and evaluated. The integration date, along with decisions on when troops could be actively involved in the technology, will be determined later. Reaching those next levels requires time, as well as determinations on funding and requirements definition.

While the work may be funded and provided for the Air Force Research Laboratory, all the military services will benefit from the research. Hushion explains that the Air Force has the lead on the effort, but in today’s battle environment, no war is fought by a single service. “Under joint doctrine, we all fight together,” he says. The four military branches conduct operations together, and all those participants on the electronic battlefield can be brought into the facility.

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.